Oh punctuation, thou can be confusing…

But never fear! The Writer’s Cookbook Simple Guide to Confusing Punctuation is here!

Want to know the difference between hyphens, em dashes and en dashes?

What about a semicolon and a colon?

And should you put an apostrophe S after names ending in S?

Let’s take a look…

Hyphens vs Em Dashes vs En Dashes

Up until we created Restless Minds, I knew there were three types of dashes, but I didn’t know the difference. When we started proofreading, it was imperative that we knew so that the anthology was consistent and fitted the stylesheet that we were using.


This is the one we all use. It’s used to combine two words, for instance in double-barrel names, or when combining two words to create an adjective.


  • Helena Bonham-Carter
  • Blue-grey hair

Em Dash

This is the one that’s used—often in the place of brackets—to join clauses together. It’s the longest of the dashes, and it’s up to you whether you have a space either side, but make sure you’re consistent with whichever you choose. When Microsoft Office automatically creates a longer dash, this is an en-dash.

Em dashes are also used at the end of dialogue where a character’s speech has been cut off.


  • I’m not sure—what do you think?
  • ‘Hollie, I—‘

En Dash

En dashes are used for times and dates.

They sometimes crop up in printed books too, as an alternative to the em-dash.


  • 1999–2001

Punctuation marks making your head spin? The Writer's Cookbook punctuation guide has just the solution!

Semicolon vs. Colon

Semicolons and colons are now most commonly used in emoticons, but they’re useful punctuation marks, too. They can often (and easily) be confused.


I love semi-colons and wish they were used more often. The way I remember it is that it indicates a pause in between that of a comma (short pause) and a full stop (long pause). That’s why they look like a full stop on top of a comma. They’re useful in lists to separate items as they can make it easier for people to read. However, they shouldn’t be used before words such as ‘and’ or ‘because’, something which you can (sometimes) get away with if using a comma.

If you want to get technical about it, semi-colons are used to separate two independent clauses that could otherwise be connected by something like ‘and’ or ‘because’.

A good way to remember it is if the second half of the sentence doesn’t work on its own, use a semicolon.


  • I love semicolons; you should use them more often.


This is the one that seems to confuse people the most. Colons are used when the second half of your sentence expands on the first. They’re also used to introduce lists. If you introduce the list with a colon, do not separate the items in the list with semicolons.

They can also be used when telling the time, or showing scores.


  • Look who it is: Ash and his merry Pokémon.
  • There was a lot of people there: Hollie, Fayth, Astin, Liam, Tate, and Jack.
  • 22:01
  • Australia 2:1 England


Square Brackets

Square brackets are used when you’re quoting someone and you’ve changed part of the quote. They’re particularly useful when editing statements so that they flow in the text better, or in essays. They assist in the readability of the text.


  • “[She] said [she] just wanted to be friends.’

Curly Brackets/Braces

Unless you’re into science, maths or programming, you probably won’t come across these much. They’re also used to represent a hug.

Normal Brackets (Parenthesis)

Normal brackets seem to be less popular than they used to be. Em-dashes seem to be much more popular when it comes to asides in writing these days. Brackets are used when making a side comment to something (like a character making a sarcastic comment mid-sentence).

They’re also used in coding and emoticons.


  • I said I wasn’t sure (but really I was).

Triangular Brackets/Chevrons/Angle Brackets

Another maths, science and programming one. They’re also used in comic books to indicate speech or the use of a foreign language, and in IMing.


I love ellipses. I go through phases of using them to much in my writing, then have to cut them out when I edit.

Their primary function is to show when text has been cut out, or when a character’s thoughts have trailed off.


  • I gave him a chance…but he blew it.
  • I thought that was the end of it…

Possessive Apostrophes

You think you know the apostrophe. But it’s not as simple as you think…

Plurals and Ss

There’s a great debate in the literary world about whether it should say James’s book or James’ book. The truth? Both are correct.

Primarily, James’s is British English, and James’ is American English.

However, it sometimes depends on personal preference/the preference of the publisher/media outlet too.


This is something that used to cause me so much confusion, and frankly still does a little bit.

I always found it difficult to work out when to use an apostrophe after words like ‘weeks’ or ‘months’. It wasn’t until I asked on Facebook that a few people chimed in and helped me to get my head around it. The more I put it into practise, the easier I’ve found to work it out.


Take the film Two Weeks Notice.

There was an uproar when it was released as the name is grammatically incorrect. It should say Two Weeks’ Notice. Why?

To work it out, we rephrase the sentence: it’s a notice period of two weeks. Same as it would be a holiday of two weeks, making it two weeks’ holiday.

However, if you were to say two weeks later, you would not put an apostrophe because you can’t have a later of two weeks; that just sounds daft.

Technically speaking, this is still classed as a possessive apostrophe: that holiday belongs to the two weeks, as does the notice, but later is abstract and therefore does not belong.

There you have it: the simple guide to confusing punctuation!

Some of the most commonly confused and mis-used punctuation marks out there. I’m not going to lie—I’m not perfect and sometimes get them muddled up too, but that’s what friends are for!

What punctuation marks confuse you the most? How do you get around it?